Dealing with Political and Societal Uncertainty
Written by Hillary Gorin, PhD, LCP
Regardless of your political views, your understanding of the impact of COVID-19, or your beliefs about societal injustices, nearly every U.S. citizen is experiencing stress, uncertainty, and worry. Worry is an important cognitive function, as it helps humans solve problems effectively, plan for the future, and remain motivated. We may worry about solvable problems and, at other times, unsolvable problems. When we worry about solvable problems, we often find a solution and can put the concerns behind us. However, when we worry about unsolvable problems or problems that extend beyond our control, we can find it difficult to know what to do with the uncertainty. With an immense desire to solve an unsolvable problem, we can fall into what I like to call the ‘worry cycle’ or the ‘hamster wheel of worry.’ Our minds go around and around, searching for answers we cannot seem to find. So, how do you get off this hamster wheel? How do you accept uncertainty, particularly during these times of social unrest, political turmoil, and a terrifying pandemic?
Many may think, ‘I will just reassure myself!’ or ‘Everything is going to be fine.’ Alternatively, many try to distract from or avoid the worry. For some, this strategy may be effective. For others, the worry persists, early in the morning, late in the evening, while watching the presidential debate, while scrolling through social media, while reading about COVID-19, while obsessively searching for polling predictions. The worry persists, even though you say, “Hey brain, everything is just fine.”
Why don’t our brains listen to this self-reassurance? Why is it challenging for some, especially now, to believe that everything will be ok? Because the reality is, many of us have never faced risks/ threats of this magnitude before. These current threats are present and lingering in the background every day. Compared to various other points in our lives, the political unrest and looming pandemic have increased the chances that something bad could happen to us. Thus, no matter how hard we try to find evidence against our worries, we can’t find clear evidence that disproves our worry completely. So, worries propel through our minds, such as, ‘What if my loved one gets COVID? What if I lose my job? What if that candidate becomes president? What if social injustice persists?’ These are all possible, scary outcomes due to current, omnipresent stressors.
So, if reassurance and looking for evidence that everything will be ok does not work, how do we get these catastrophic thoughts out of our heads? One possibility is a technique called decatastrophizing. Decatastrophizing involves considering whether or not you could find ways to cope in the face of a feared outcome (Zinbarg et al., 2006). This technique assists us with changing our thinking from, ‘I could never cope if that happened’ to ‘This would be difficult, but I would find a way to cope.’ This could appear as asking yourself, ‘Will I survive this election?” The answer is – yes, you will, even if things don’t go the way you are hoping. Asking, ‘Will I survive this’ helps us see that the threat we are facing is not as imminent as it feels. In other words, we are not in imminent danger all the time, despite how these political, societal, and health crises may make us feel.
So why does your brain make you feel like you are facing an imminent risk while watching a debate from the comfort of your couch? Studies suggest that the area of the brain involved in detecting threat, the amygdala, is triggered by certain thoughts, certain worries, and uncertainty (Hilbert et al., 2014). Decatastrophizing can be an initial step to telling that part of the brain that it can settle down. Instead of telling ourselves, ‘I will never manage to live through this,’ we can say, ‘I don’t like the world right now but I will probably be able to find a way to live in it.’
The next important step can be considering how you would actually cope with certain feared outcomes. This can be accomplished by considering what specific coping strategies could help you manage the situation. For example, if you lose your job, what steps would you take to manage it? For some, a coping strategy could be updating your resume and looking for job opportunities.
Of course, this thought of losing your job will undoubtedly bring up anxiety, which brings me to another suggestion that I propose for most of my patients: The more we can start to accept uncertainty and sit with it, the less we will be propelled to continue running on the hamster wheel of worry. Sitting with anxiety is challenging and specific techniques are best applied with the assistance of a licensed mental health professional. However, beginning to allow yourself to feel anxiety, to ride the wave, and to let it come up and come down is important for everyone because we must see that we can tolerate anxiety, that it won’t last forever, and that we do not need to fear this emotion. Instead, anxiety/ fear is a critical emotion that keeps us alive. In life threatening situations, these emotions tell us when we are in danger. For example, many people experience anxiety and fear when they stand too close to the edge of a mountain. This anxiety/fear is normal and adaptive to keep us alive, as it prompts us to take a step back! However, sometimes we have this anxiety/fear in situations that are not life threatening, as our brains are mistakenly telling us that our lives are at risk. When there is nothing to act on immediately and when the worry is unsolvable, sitting with the anxiety and accepting that one person cannot eliminate our current health crisis or our political and social unrest, is important. Sitting with anxiety can be as simple as accepting the possibility of your feared outcome occurring. It may or it may not come true.
Many ask me, ‘Why doesn’t avoidance/ distraction work? Isn’t that what we learn at an early age?’ Yes, distraction and avoidance are useful, at times, particularly when our anxiety is in the low to moderate range. When we are feeling slightly worried or anxious, watching a funny movie, participating in relaxing activities, or taking a walk tends to help reduce our physical and psychological tension. However, when our anxiety becomes too high, our amygdala, or that threat detector in our brain, is on high alert. This threat detector acts quickly and efficiently, without much input from logical thinking or what are considered, ‘executive functions’ (LeDoux, 2000). Why? Because, in the face of a threat, we need to act quickly. We do not have time to think. Imagine if you are in the woods and you see a bear on the trail! Your first reaction will be fight, flight (run away), or freeze (hide and hope that you are not seen). You likely will not be able to think through the situation logically. In these situations, our amygdala or ‘emotional brain’ holds our ‘thinking/ cognitive brain’ hostage so that we can act on instinct, automatically (Okon-Singer et al., 2015)! So, when politics, health crises, and societal unrest trigger high levels of anxiety, our brain tells us to fight, flight, or freeze. When you tell it to ‘calm down,’ ‘chill out,’ ‘distract yourself,’ ‘Look at all the evidence you will be fine,’ our amygdala tells us ‘NO WAY!’ It believes it still has work to do to keep us safe.
Thus, I will again emphasize the importance of sitting with anxiety when we can, or with the help of a licensed mental health professional when we cannot. We need to let the anxiety peak and come down so that our logical, thinking brain can take back control! ‘Sit with it’ is a phrase my patients hear often because if you don’t sit with the anxiety and see that you will survive it, see you will cope with it, and see that it will not last forever, the ‘hamster wheel of worry’ can become very exhausting and self-doubt can grow. It is possible that your fears will come true. However, I am confident that you will find a way to survive and to cope with whatever comes your way.
If you're feeling like you need a little more help navigating through worry call or email us today to schedule an appointment to speak with a clinician. Take a look at our provider page for a full list on all clinicians that treat anxiety disorders.
Hillbert, K., Lueken, U., & Beesdo-Baum, K. (2014). Neural structures, functioning and
connectivity in generalized anxiety disorder and interaction with neuroendocrine systems:
A systematic review. Journal of Affective Disorder, 158, 114-126. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jad.2014.01.022
LeDoux, J. E. (2000). Emotion circuits in the brain. Annual Review of Neuroscience, 23(1),
Zinbarg, R. E., Craske, M. G., & Barlow, D. H. (2006). Mastery of Your Anxiety and Worry:
Therapist Guide (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
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